The Perils of Extreme Positive Thinking
by Lara Owen
It is an oft-repeated tenet of the self-help industry that positive thinking is something to strive for and that if you do it well enough, you can get everything you want. This notion is the basis of Rhonda Byrne’s bestselling books, “The Secret” and her latest offering, “The Power”, which begins with a catechism of all the things you unequivocally deserve in this life, (health, wealth, a great job, a fabulous marriage, etc, etc) and then tells you that by exercising the power of your imagination you can have them all.
Clearly, most of us need to employ our will in order to succeed in our lives, (whatever success means to us), but behind the package of beliefs espoused in “The Secret” and “The Power” is the assumption that it is easy–never mind advisable–to be permanently endowed with positive thoughts of our personal success. But even the most stubborn of minds is susceptible to the inconvenience of the unconscious, (both individual and collective), and thus it is a rare Buddha indeed who can entirely control their thoughts.
Not only is it extremely difficult to achieve nonstop positive thinking, it is fraught with danger, because unless you understand the nature of the unconscious and the source of your desire, what you wish for may be a false dream, something others want you to want, or your inner two-year old wants. So even if you attain your goal, you won’t be happy. In addition, as much of the world’s greatest literature attests, the notion that you are entitled to whatever you want is riven with the most ghastly of convoluted ego-traps, a landscape of psychological land mines that go off one after the other until it dawns on you that the pursuit of desire is actually a dead-end unless, as the Buddhist teachings make clear, you can do so with no attachment to the objects of desire themselves.
Here, to use the favoured self-help format of bullet points and lists, are three reasons why these entwined notions of entitlement and extreme positive thinking are counter-productive and even dangerous.
1. Dreams and wishes are intrinsic to human nature and probably vital to psychological health. They are often worth pursuing, and most likely should be energetically pursued. But a great many desires are infected by capitalism and its manipulative child, the advertising industry, and by immature and selfish motivation. Materialism and egomania drive most ambition, sadly. This always ends in tears, one way or the other. Either you find that what you sought did not bring happiness after all, or along the way you trample on so many other people that your success is shadowed by the suffering of others. A wiser course is to go for your goals in a more tempered way than the extreme positive thinking gurus advise, to accept that “Into every life, a little rain must fall”, and to read the life stories of the super-successful, which are a good reminder of the old wisdom found in myths and legends: that to push too hard for paradise can bring a counter-balancing reaction with difficult or even tragic consequences. To find out who you really are and to be motivated by true ambition–soul-level ambition–is a different quest than the one outlined in the extreme positive-thinking self-help school. It requires a commitment to personal truth which is the converse of imposed positive thinking.
2. Only the spiritually liberated or the very, very young are untroubled by the unconscious, or by collective woes. How can you think “positive thoughts” all the time when so many people are suffering, never mind about the truth of your own feelings? Denial is a useful psychological strategy in the short-term, but to suggest to people that it is actually empowering is just facile nonsense.
3. The soul, or psyche, is not interested in success as much as it is interested in truth. Speak with someone who is truthful unto their own experience of life and who also listens deeply to the experience of others, and you will come away feeling your consciousness expanded and your heart fuller, able to be kinder to yourself and all you meet, and more in touch with your own truth. Speak with someone who trots out glib and reality-denying platitudes and you come away feeling inwardly conflicted if perhaps spurred on, as if by a shot of triple-strength New Age caffeine, to achieve your goals. But there is an emptiness in this stressful relationship to reality, and all too often people feel worse after too much effort in this direction and end up with a guilty sense of failure (I couldn’t have tried hard enough) or an aggrieved sense of being hard done by (I was entitled to EVERYTHING and woe is me, I didn’t get it.)
So beware the quick fix, and don’t burden your sweet self with the false promises of extreme positive thinking. Yes, positive reframes and positive goals are good, and doable, and you can improve your life. Everything can feel much better if you apply wise strategies, and you can be healthy and happy, some if not most (but never all) of the time. But when the Buddha said, “Life is suffering”, he was onto something much deeper than the grasping desperation of “The Secret” and “The Power”. Yes, you can move beyond attachment to suffering, but to do so demands that you move beyond attachment to ego, and false perception, and that you take into account and work towards the fulfillment of others too.
Yes, the imagination is an enormously powerful tool that quite literally shapes our reality. We can ruin our own lives by constantly imagining the worst and by focusing our minds on unhelpful imagery and content. Conversely, we can shape our future by moving in healthy directions that imbue us with confidence and an ever-deepening sense of personal integrity.
But when we do imagine a better future for ourselves, it is only viable if we include everyone else in the picture too. For if you have the big house on the hill, who lives down in the valley? We are all connected, always and forever, and no amount of narcissistic Ayn Rand-inspired and capitalist-fuelled so-called positivity can ultimately get around that.
Lara Owen, 2010. All rights reserved.
Lara Owen writes and researches on menstruation, work, and feminism. She teaches and consults internationally.